HARLINGEN, Texas — This time of year, tens of thousands of ducks winter in southernmost Texas, and the Laguna Madre or Mother Lagoon is home to an estimated 80 percent of the million plus redhead ducks residing in North America.
Redhead ducks, with the males shimmering cinnamon heads, are one of the regions most abundant avian visitors, and they gather in impressive rafts along the shore of the Lower Laguna Madre which forms the eastern boundary of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
The Lower Laguna Madre is one of only three hypersaline lagoons in the world. While the lagoon is often saltier than the Gulf of Mexico, it is the most productive lagoon in Texas. With an average depth of only some three feet, the exceptionally clear and shallow waters teem with abundant sea grasses.
Redheads feed primarily on submerged aquatic grasses in the lagoon, and the abundant shoal grass is their favorite. In the process of consuming marine plants, redheads ingest high levels of salt. While they have a special salt gland that helps them process the salt, they also flock to freshwater sources on adjacent refuge lands to drink and cleanse their feathers.
This area was recognized in the 1930’s as a vital waterfowl wintering and resting area, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service was very interested in acquiring the land.
It was not until 1946 that the first tract of 11,000 acres became property of the Fish and Wildlife Service. That 11,000-acre beginning of Laguna Atascosa has now grown to encompass 110,000 acres and protects myriad species of waterfowl from redhead ducks to geese and sandhill cranes.
Beginning in January, 2021 Laguna Atascosa will celebrate its 75th anniversary, and throughout the decades the refuge has successfully protected a plethora of wildlife from ocelots to Aplomado falcons, and it all started 75 years ago with the conservation of the Redhead duck.